The Spirit of Christmas Plagiarism
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little blog, to raise the Ghost of an Idea …*
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, 2012 is the year of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. Part of his enduring celebrity is due to modern readers being able to relate to themes discussed almost two centuries ago. Tiny Tim going hungry at Christmas still tugs on the heartstrings, while Pip’s love/hate relationship with Estella wouldn’t seem out of place on Eastenders. One of the most recognisable parts of A Christmas Carol is Scrooge’s unwilling journey of self discovery by looking at his past, present and future – I think we can all gain some insight by taking a step back and examining where we’re going and where we came from.
So, with my nightcap firmly in place (and no sign of the Muppets), let me persuade you to take a well-earned break from your mince pies and I’ll take you on a journey through the spectres of e-learning past, present and future …
Self examination – is it always a jolly affair?
Click to Continue’s ghost and the haunted present.
Looking back on some of the earliest e-learning courses, it’s hard not to laugh at the rudimentary ‘interactions’ and dull narration. We’ve come a long way from clicking to continue on every page, or from thinking that a clip art course guide is the best way to engage learners.
But the scary part is that some of these elements haven’t yet been stamped out. In an age where nearly all of us use a computer, is it really necessary to have an instruction page detailing how to use an online course? I think most of us can work out that clicking the sound icon will turn the audio on, and that the home button will take us to the homepage – after all, these mirror the websites, games and applications that we use every day.
Another element that I feel is stuck in the past is the linear structure of a lot of e-learning courses. In our ‘on-demand’ society, we are used to being able to pick and choose the information that we need, whether that’s from YouTube tutorials or Wikipedia. So why do we ask learners to trawl through content that they may already be familiar with so that they can get to the part that interests them? Sometimes it’s because the project sponsor wants their employees to cover everything on a topic, but I still think there are better ways around this. Instead of having module one working through to module five, how about letting the learner choose what they do first? That way users can focus on their priorities, which is more efficient for the business as essential skills can be learnt more quickly, and learners are less likely to lose patience with the course.
Look to the future, it’s only just begun?
“Ghost of the Future,” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good … I am prepared to bear you company.”
Once again, A Christmas Carol hits the nail on the head. The future is frightening. How are we going to make use of all this new technology (which is constantly evolving) without looking gimmicky? How can we keep e-learning fresh and exciting? But the race to keep up with innovation is definitely a good thing for us – it pushes us to new limits of design and structure, and will lead to bigger and better e-learning.
One trend that is currently doing the rounds is ‘gamification’ (for more on this, see Alex’s earlier blog). Although some project sponsors may be sceptical of the educational value of game based learning, I think that we’re more than able to respond to a format that truly allows users to take control. If you consider how many button combinations and complicated tactics users of Skyrim learn during the course of a game, I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to imagine we can use that enjoyment driven learning in an online course. In fact, we’re currently working on a Bribery Act e-learning ‘game’ which will be showcased at this year’s LT Show, which uses branching scenarios to create a ‘choose your own adventure’ style progression. Bad choices have in-game consequences, which is much more enjoyable and therefore potentially more effective than the standard ‘That’s not quite right …’
So let’s learn from our past, keep an eye on what we can make use of in the present, and aim for a truly engaging e-learning future.
Merry Christmas to all!
Okay, maybe I lied about there being no Muppets in this blog …
*All quotes in italics from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
It’s the office Christmas party and everyone’s taking their seats at the table. Who would you rather sit next to, the rather dull colleague in the lovely dress or the one with the great stories who you really get on with? An e-learning course’s ‘look’ is important… but its ‘personality’ is paramount.
Some e-learning blogs include tips such as ‘use handwritten style fonts to make your e-learning engaging’ – but surely that’s like saying someone is interesting and likeable because they have a nice haircut? Effective graphic design and the overall presentation can make a course more user-friendly and visually exciting. However it’s a course’s voice and personality which can truly engage the learner.
Here are my five steps to engaging your learner by creating a distinct personality in an e-learning course.
1. Create a personality for the voice of the course at the beginning of the design process, rather than trying to ‘inject’ personality further down the line
If you’re at the stage where you’re adding in handwritten style fonts, it’s a bit late – the instructional design, graphic design and development need to work together to create a believable personality.
2. Set the right tone
The course speaks to your learner and aims to hold their attention for up to sixty minutes, so the tone of voice needs to be just right. Too patronising or ‘out there’ (picture someone who has drunk far too much at the office party) and your learner will cringe away. Too stuffy and formal and your learner will feel like they’re reading from a textbook, and who really remembers the order of the elements on the periodic table?
Write how you speak… It’s OK to begin sentences with ‘And’ and ‘But’.
3. Go beyond writing in the first or second person – create a person
Clark and Mayer’s theory states that personalisation ‘induces learners to engage with the computer as a social conversational partner’. Would you listen to someone who comes across as arrogant, dull and perhaps even a bit thick? Probably not. Create a social conversational partner that will engage your learner – someone they wouldn’t mind sitting next to at the Christmas do!
4. Agree your style guidelines
Turn your course’s personality traits into some style rules. Imagine how your social conversational partner might speak, so instead of ‘Course objectives’ introductory screens could begin with ‘What’s coming up’. Instructional design and graphic design need to agree on these style points before you write the course, as the writing tone, images of the course guide and the overall design need to be consistent. And if your learning solution is a blend you’ll need the involvement of, say, the classroom trainer and the social media expert.
5. Avoid Bieber-esque slip-ups… check the details!
I’m sure Biebs’ PR team isn’t too happy about the allegations that a fan is pregnant with his child. This supposed dalliance just doesn’t fit his carefully constructed butter-wouldn’t-melt persona. Avoid pulling a Bieber and instead take inspiration from Innocent, the smoothie-maker and brand language God which carries its distinctive tone of voice through from website to ingredients lists on product labels.
Check your style is consistent at every level – don’t lose your learner by overlooking details such as the style of the audio voiceover and check the writing style right down to image captions and launch page text. After all, you wouldn’t want your Christmas party outfit to be let down by laddered tights.
 Clark, Ruth. C., Mayer, Richard. E. (2003). E-Learning and the science of instruction: proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer Edition. P.180. ISBN: 0-7879-6051-0
Does a good-looking course qualify as good quality? What about an ordinary course that brings about great behavioural change? I’m sure the argument can be extended to both sides. But my argument is to take the middle-path (very Buddha-like indeed, except I see no chance of Nirvana!).
As instructional designers, our primary responsibility is to bring about behavioural change, thereby, hopefully, also providing sufficient return on investment for our clients. At the same time, most of us are also looking to maximize our profits. So we need to strike a perfect balance between a good product that does not exceed budgets and a product that gets the job done: in short, the minimum we can do to get the maximum.
Where does that leave quality? Out in the open, in some cases, I’m afraid. If the client is happy, and we get our money, we seem to think of it as a job well done. Now, here comes the middle-path bit (let it not be said I didn’t warn you!)… that’s not enough! As conscientious professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure that we provide a learning experience that the learner can enjoy.
- Quality is not about quantity: more interactions do not make for better quality
- Visually stimulating products need to be backed up by well-thought out content chunks
A patient walks into the doctor’s chamber and advises the doctor on what line of treatment he would prefer. Alternatively, if you prefer scenario two, the farm owner walks into the office of the investment banker and advises him where he should invest the firm’s money.
If you think both are perfectly normal, then you may as well stop reading here – I’ve failed to make a point and there’s nothing more in this blog for you. However, if these two instances do strike you as a tad out of the ordinary, then I have a question for you: When it comes to instructional design, why is it that the clients often decide on what’s best?
Some instructional designers are quite happy to let a course go the way it is provided the client is happy. What’s wrong with that? Well, I’ve seen screens with visuals that make no sense, interactive screens with over 50 clicks that do not make one iota of difference to the outcome of the course, screens with amounts of text that would make even the great Leo Tolstoy cringe, and sentences that are longer and even more convoluted than this one!
Some say you’ve got to take the good with the bad, and I guess that’s the theme of today’s blog. I’ve recently been working on a couple of courses in Articulate, a rapid authoring tool in which you can build professional online instruction and interactions such as multi-response, in Engage, Presenter and Quizmaker. From colour schemes on hotspots and drag and drop tabs, to personalised individual feedback on multi-choice quizzes, Articulate allows you to tailor every course to your needs, and for that, it’s brilliant. But every fairytale has its trials, and with its hidden file settings and disobedient applications, Articulate is no exception. ‘Simple’ interactions have sprouted several problematic gremlins in my courses – gremlins with a deft ability to escape a number of computers and baffle the developer. So with that in mind, here it is: a quick-fire review of Articulate – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly!
Why we should treasure it:
- It’s fast. Articulate isn’t part of the ‘rapid authoring tool’ family for nothing.
- Unlike Adobe Flash, output in Articulate interactions have Flash content, and launch in Flash player, but this Flash content is self contained, and ‘invisible’ to the user. All you need to remember is that Flash player must be installed when running the course. Simple.
- It’s familiar. Remember when Microsoft Office first erupted onto the scene, and we all had to learn how to incorporate PowerPoint into our business meetings? The part of us that wilted as we realised that the childish fun flipchart doodles provided was no more? Now PowerPoint has come of age, and we bow our heads in respect, at this simple but mighty tool proudly presents itself as the plug-in template for Articulate presenter. Operating in the exact same way as PPT, changing text, player templates and colour schemes couldn’t be easier.
- It’s straightforward. Building basic interactions in Articulate’s Engage and Quizmaker applications is really simple. Forget about HTML programming, because with Articulate non-developers can literally select which interactions they want to integrate from drag and drop, to multi-choice questions and just type or copy in whatever questions, options or feedback they want. The ‘more complicated’ stuff, like importing audio is really just as easy. You import audio’ in almost the same way as you would upload a file or image in PPT. It looks professional – complex even – and it takes just minutes to build.
Why we should banish it:
- It’s tedious. If you need to make a change to interactions in the course, such as the amount of attempts users are allowed when answering questions, you can’t make a universal change – the developer must go through each slide and check that elements are checked/unchecked in the toolbar or change menu. An ‘apply to all’ function would really help here, and quicken the pace, too.
- ‘Hidden’ applications are also common. There have been times where I have selected “3 points” to reward correct responses in interactions, only to find that I have to select this application somewhere else as well, in order for the change to take effect. Having to trawl through different menus to check this adds time to development, and is rather frustrating, when one check-box enabling or disabling a function would be adequate.
- It’s so elusive! We have experienced issues with projects that we’ve developed in Articulate. Audio transcripts will disappear from some notes tabs when published and transcripts appear in other slides where there is no audio.
However, the difficult, and most time consuming aspect of these issues, is that they surface on some computers, and not others. Even after checking browser and Flash player settings and versions, these issues can dodge diagnostics by picking and choosing when they will replicate on other stations. It has been a notorious issue, one which we have solved by calling in the big dogs: the Articulate engineers themselves. Interestingly, the engineer told me that the issue I was facing is a known (and underpublicized) fault with the software which Articulate has so far been unable to fix. After a great deal of searching, I found the work-around for this issue on the Articulate website but alas, it didn’t work! 110 dollars later, the engineer was more than happy to talk me through an improved version of the work-around. All this extra work wreaks havoc on project budgets and can test even the best client relationships. My only question now is, will Articulate’s solution (when it arrives) be available as a free update or will we all have to purchase a new and improved version of the software? Fortunately, you can get around some of these bugs by developing your own player template in Flash, rather than using Articulate’s default template. We’ve used our own customised player template with much success – it looksand works better. And if you build your quiz and interaction screens in Flash too then you can avoid some of the other problems that I’ve outlined above. But then one gets to wondering: if most of the course is built in Flash, then why bother with Articulate at all? From our client’s perspectives, one of Articulate’s key virtues is that it allows them to easily edit the course in-house. But the more Flash based content you use, the less editable the course becomes. So there it is – the good and the bad. Articulate can be a great tool when you’ve got the time, budget and patience. Otherwise it might leave you feeling as if you’ve bitten into a poisoned apple – more than you could chew. Of course, in real life, it’s not as simple as ‘banishing’ a programme, or an important piece of software, no matter how much we sometimes might want to. And there are some extremely useful and detailed user manuals out there which can help non-developers through the vast majority of issues, step by step. But for now I’ll retire to my mystical world, a lost heroine dreaming for a hundred years, about Articulate…or maybe just until Monday.